Wild child or mild child? Hippie chick or hippie chic? All the above or none of the above?
Richards strikes a delicate balance in her second solo effort, the long-awaited follow-up to 2001’s The Herethereafter. She seamlessly weaves her crystal clear vocals, dreamy touch on the piano, and exquisite string arrangements with producer/engineer Rick Parker’s blistering guitar runs and Ben Peeler’s twangy pedal steel contributions.
Maybe this should come as no surprise to those familiar with her enigmatic past. But the uninitiated will find this to be one of the most pleasant finds of early 2009. Who knew that anyone even vaguely connected to High Times (her mother Teresa was a co-founder), Metallica and the Brian Jonestown Massacre could produce such sweet (but not sappy) sounds?
As the love child of two San Franciscans partly responsible for the underground comics revolution, Richards embraced the boho lifestyle. Taking modeling jobs in Paris and learning to play guitar from Metallica’s Kirk Hammett.
After recording a demo in the basement of Hammett’s studio, Richards was invited to jump in and swim in the sea of madness that was on display in BJM, most visibly through ringleader Anton Newcombe.
Fortunately, the glamour girl escaped from the motley crew with her wits and dignity intact. In fact, as seen through the eyes of filmmaker Ondi Timoner’s camera lens in the remarkably riveting music documentary DIG!, Richards appeared to be a voice of reason as a part-time singer amid the utter chaos that ran the band into the ground.
After one of Newcombe’s infamous meltdowns, Richards turned to the camera and said, “Anton, just don’t die. … What’s the alternative? You either get straight or you die.”
A few minutes earlier in the film, which was released in 2004, Richards is seen in a lighter moment, appearing with other members of the band all dressed in white for a photo shoot. She relates a brief conversation she’s had with a hiker who comes across the group and asks, “Are you guys a member of a cult or just shooting a video?”
“That’s a really good question,” Richards says on camera. “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that for you right now. I’m still figuring it out myself.”
Richards no longer comes across as being quite that naive, but her caring soul is apparent on Light of X even while one tries to make sense of her innocence mission.
Almost all of her 13 songs are quiet, reflective pieces that compare favorably to the best of Dido and Sarah McLachlan, even if her shimmering vocals might not measure up to their full power and range.
On “Olive Tree,” one of the loveliest cuts on the album, Richards sings quietly and wistfully over acoustic and pedal steel guitars, “Life’s a walk in the park on a cold misty mornin’ / Life’s a virtual sunrise that leaves me undaunted,” and you believe her.
The pedal steel is a constant companion throughout “Lifeboat,” another hypnotic (in a good way) number that ends in an electric guitar flurry guaranteed to bring anyone out of a comfortable trance.
But Richards’ transcendental journey doesn’t last forever. While her voice remains sweet and pure, she jumps off the peace train and bites back on “Savorin’ Your Smile,” a someone-done-you-wrong song.
“I see you on the street in a future’s day,
And I almost pass you by, we’re strangers again
Well it’s clear to me now, some people never change
If you hurt me again it wouldn’t feel the same.”
And on “Early November,” the album’s first single, the pace picks up as an obsessive Richards tells an unrequited lover, “I’m wantin’ so much more.”
If there’s a “which one doesn’t belong” song on the album, which clocks in at just under an hour, it’s the hidden track. “Oddity” could pass as an ode to the beat poets of the Fifties or her creative parents of Sixties San Francisco, a spoken word sermon accompanied by the straining sounds of a Horror House Hammond organ and creepy guitars. It’s one false note that’s more mystery lesson than history lesson.
But maybe that’s what makes Richards’ mystique so embraceable as she sheds new Light on her life. This splendid work produces feelings of longing and melancholy that will leave you coming back for more.
Even if this alluring temptress plans to keep her audience guessing.
• Miranda Lee Richards was scheduled to wind up a month-long residency at Spaceland in Los Angeles on February 24.
See a trailer for 2004’s DIG! that includes Miranda Lee Richards:
See Miranda Lee Richards’ new music video for “Early November” directed by acclaimed photographer Piper Ferguson: